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The Zoo

Worth Every Bun-Penny

The Zoo

by Arthur Sullivan, libretto by Bolton Rowe

Hounslow Light Opera Company at St. Stephen’s, Hounslow, 9th March
then to St. Mary’s Hampton, 10th March

Review by Mark Aspen

When Albert, in Stanley Holloway’s rhyme, goes to the zoo at Blackpool, his whole family, the Ramsbottoms, are not impressed with the journey there. “They didn’t think much to the ocean, the waves they were piddlin’ and small. There were no wrecks and nobody drownded, ‘fact, nothin’ to laugh at at all! Hounslow Light Opera Company take no such chances when taking us to the zoo at Hounslow.

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The first half of the froth, fun and frolics that is HLOC’s The Zoo, takes us to its operetta menagerie by a delightful and entertaining route. We pack our musical bags with The Bare Necessities, melodious close harmony by the chorus, fetchingly dressed for the occasion with scarlet cravats over snappy black costumes.

The chorus, of fourteen ladies and two brave men, sings Bye Bye Blackbird and we are off. Along the road, we see plenty of other birds. First Meadowlark , a touching song about a blind bird whose “voice could match the angel’s in its glory”, a beautifully lyrical rendition by soprano, Lindsey-Anne Carter. June Hume invites us to Feed the Birds, warmly rounded in the mezzo end of the register. But even before we had said our adieus to the blackbird, Tony Cotterill, in contrast, had been urging us to go Poisoning Pigeons in the Park. This wicked little piece, penned by Tom Leher, points out that “it’s not against any relig-i-on to want to dispose of a pig-e-on” and allows Cotterill to give full rein to his acting skills. Having grounded the birds, the chorus is back with a Chicken-Little Medley.

What more grounded animal is there than a hippopotamus, especially when “wallowing in glorious mud”. Flanders and Swann’s much loved duet, The Hippopotamus Song, became a solo duet from Paul Huggins on the opening night, when his singing partner was indisposed. The valiant Huggins continued unabashed, but, even more valiantly, had to put up with the community singing of the audience who insisted in helping him out in the choruses. The eponymous hippopotamus fared better as “his inamorata adjusted her garter and lifted her voice in duet”.

On the way to the zoo, a black cat crossing your path might be lucky … unless it happened to be T.S. Eliot’s Macavity, as we are reminded by Elizabeth Malone in her spoken verse interlude, but if the cat is a sensual as Andrea Wilkins moggie, then Everybody Wants to Be a Cat. One can feel that the huskily swaying Wilkins desperately wants to dance, a tap routine perhaps. Certainly if she could release the animal and let it rip, it would be very dangerous!

When the route to the zoo becomes an equestrian bridleway, the horses let rip. First out of the starting gate are Felicity Morgan’s White Horses, “snowy white” that “let me ride away”. A coloratura soprano accompanying herself on guitar, we feel in the music their manes twirling in the wind. Then Rachael White’s Wild Horses, slightly more under control than Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ 1971 original, beautifully sung, in a lyrical soprano.

The as we approach the zoo gates, tremble Albert Ramsbottom, for we hear The Lion King Medley, lots of bold leonine chorus work, expressively sung, as one might say, with pride!!

A quick stop for refreshments and then the gates of Bolton Rowe’s zoo, The Zoo that we’ve all come along to visit. This bijou operetta is immediately recognisable as in the G&S style, but this was premiered in 1875 with Rowe as librettist. Although in the fledgling years of the Gilbert and Sullivan collaborations, The Zoo was usurped at the box offices by Trial by Jury and very undeservedly has languish somewhat ever since. But I thought I caught a hint of “Wand’ring Minstrel” in some of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s score. The overture is pure Sullivan, and how skilfully it opens the zoo gates for us in the hands of HLOC’s incomparable musical director, Lee Dewsnap, teasing the impact of an orchestra from a keyboard.

We stroll into The Zoo together with a preoccupied Crowd of Visitors to the Zoo, the HOLC’s chorus, who accompanied us on our perambulations in the first half. They are so enjoying the day that they are almost too preoccupied to notice a young man about to hang himself at the refreshment stall by the bear pit. Not that they are too bothered, they just want to “know the reason why. Is it your wife?” The dangling distraught man, the wonderfully, albeit appropriately named, Aesculapius Carboy, is a pharmaceutical neophyte, who is in love with Laetitia Grinder. Carboy explains that her parents disapprove of the match, so he has been communicating with Laetitia via the labels on the medicines prescribed for her family, but the labels have got swapped around … with disastrous results.

Carboy’s demise is thwarted by the arrival of the refreshment stall holder Eliza Smith, who doesn’t want untidy corpses cluttering her stall. Moreover, Eliza’s busy love life now involves “a very ordinary man” Tom Brown, who has been desperately wooing her. So desperately in fact that he has built up a substantial bill at the refreshment stall. As she castigates him about his account, Laetitia arrives looking for Carboy, for apparently the label mix-up was a prank by her cantankerous sister.

The duets between the two pairs of lovers meet in counterpoint in a double duet that is a very clever musical matrix by Rowe and Sullivan. Carboy and Laetitia’s relieved expression of love and Tom and Eliza’s spat about the pastries join in an amalgam of decorated duet and patisserie patter-song. It is quite a virtuoso piece, well handled by the quartet.

In this quartet, the contrast in the words in the two duets also point up the different timbres in the voices of the two sopranos, both accomplished singers, Felicity Morgan’s elaborated ornamentation as Laetitia and the clear fluidity of Johanna Chamber’s Eliza. The men largely form a foil to the ladies voices. Carboy is a part made for Tony Cotterill, who acts the fateful pharmacist, distilling out the essence of the role with alchemical aplomb. But, Tom, securely sung and acted by Paul Huggins, now come to the fore, very dramatically … he collapses.

As the crowd does as crowds do, i.e crowd, the recumbent Tom pants “I think I’m going to faint.” Crowding ladies, “He’s going to be ill”. Crowding men, ”Oh, no, he ain’t!”. Until, with a last cry of “It was the last bun” … he faints.

In spite of the second onions of the lay crowd, Carboy comes to the rescue of Tom, brandishing a prescription, with which (eventually) Eliza flies off to have made up.

However, Carboy discovers that the lump in Tom’s torso, is not the last bun, but the insignia of the Order of the Garter, and can offer a diagnosis that “he’s a peer in disguise”, a not so ordinary young man after all.

If at his point you can feel the resolution of the storyline coming up, then you are right, but not before the appearance of Mrs Grinder. Andrea Wilkins’ feline mezzo is back, but this time in spitting snarling mood, as Grinder holds forth against her “wicked daughter” and her consort, that “vilest compounder of potions” , thus driving the depressive dispenser back to the rope’s end, this time in the bear pit itself.

But all is well that ends well, for Tom is now in full splendour as the Duke of Islington, and is able to buy the zoo for Eliza, so that she doesn’t miss the “”the beasts I loved so well” and, as his grace now lovingly sings, “Every morn, at early dawn, the gentle armadillo, or rattlesnake, when you awake, you’ll find upon your pillow”. He then buys off Mrs Grinder, with a wedding present to Laetitia and Carboy of ten thousand pounds.

When the voice of the hapless Carboy is heard from the bear pit (the bears have been relocated), Laetitia’s response is “Great Heavens! I had forgotten” whilst the chorus is merely miffed that he has stirred their sympathy and denied them his death. Carboy climbs out of the bear pit to “try the lion’s den.”

Maybe we can reflect with Stanley Holloway’s Mrs Ramsbottom that “it’s a shame and a sin, for a lion to go and eat Albert, and after we’ve paid to come in”. However, that would be to deny that Hounslow Light Opera’s trip to The Zoo is a great Victorian parlour-piece worth every bun-penny.

Mark Aspen
March 2018

Images courtesy of Hounslow Light Opera Company


Great Expectations

Spirit, Humour, and Humanity

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens, adapted for the stage by Ken Bentley

Malvern Theatres and Tilted Wig co-production at Richmond Theatre until 17th March, then on tour until 23rd June

Review by Celia Bard

In going to this production of Dickens classic, Great Expectations at Richmond Theatre I wondered what could make this one stand out from the many adaptations that have gone before? Condensing such a long and involved story that doesn’t go on for ever is something of a challenge.

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In short, Pip’s story is that of an orphan, his early beginnings from childhood to adulthood and his attempts to become a gentleman. I was curious to see whether this new stage adaptation by Ken Bentley and directed by Sophie Boyce Couzens would succeed in capturing the spirit, humour, and humanity of the quintessential world of Dickens. I was not disappointed for Bentley successfully manages to weave together the story’s many complex subplots. This was achieved through elements of the narrative being spoken by all actors from different stage levels, and the imaginative use of mime, music, physical movement and sudden outbursts of song. All the main characters are present, suitably attired in Victorian costume and recognisable despite some doubling up of characters.

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What makes this production stand apart from others is its modern theatre set designed by James Turner. Its dominant piece of architecture was that of a metal cube built on the diagonal that morphs seamlessly through time and space from a blacksmith’s forge to Miss Havisham’s house to Pip’s lodging. However, I found this structure had some limitations. The front corner of the cube (down stage centre left) limits the acting area and causes some sight-lines problems, and I wondered whether this part of the cube’s structure was necessary? At times I was striving to gaze through metal horizontal struts to see the actors.

Of period furniture there is little, and this liberates the audience from a literal representation of the drama. Instead it provides a mental landscape of the mind-set of the characters as well as allowing actors greater freedom of movement to embody the characters they are playing. What was most effective were the voile drapes hanging from the walls of Miss Havisham’s room, symbolising her physical and mental imprisonment. Like the voile her mind is shrouded, a condition that blinds her to the cruelty of her actions, driven by her relentless quest to seek vengeance on all men. Superb lighting effects heighten the atmosphere and mood of the action, none more so than Miss Havisham seemingly going up in flames, and the glow from the furnace in the blacksmith scene against the background rhythmic sounds of metal being beaten into shape. What I found interesting was the use of actors in providing sound effects, accentuated by the spotlight being focused on them. Here I was in two minds: momentarily it breaks the illusion but on the other hand I was impressed by this team of actors working together, and this comes across very clearly throughout the production.

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Sean Aydon, playing Pip, is superb in all stages of his mental and physical development from boy to man. This is displayed through both voice and physicality. His emotional range is also striking: sometimes fearful, at other times arrogant, insensitive, jealous, and then the more loving, generous, and understanding behaviour of a more mature Pip. This is a fine performance.

Nicola McAuliffe as Miss Havisham looks fantastic and plays this role with a level of humanity that I have not before seen in this character. This was not a two-dimensional characterisation. At times she is loving as demonstrated by the stroking of Pip’s hair. She takes pride in Estelle, very much admiring her prettiness and she genuinely seems to enjoy the children playing together. However, like many people suffering from a mental illness, she is subject to mood swings, and then we witness her cruelty and her over-riding urge to seek revenge through Pip and Estelle. The remorse she feels in her final moments before going up in flames is very moving.

Isla Carter captures Estelle’s wilfulness beautifully. A memorising feature of her performance is her ability to communicate through dance her wayward and ice-cold personality: she is wound up like a clockwork music box dancer.

James Camp presents the audience with a charming and highly entertaining Herbert Pocket. This actor has excellent timing and is the perfect companion for Pip.

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Eliza Collings is amazing in her ability to portray several different characters including Mrs Joe and Biddy. The same is said of Edward Ferrow who plays Joe Gargery and other characters.

James Dinsmore must be applauded for all the roles he played, namely, Pumblechool, Compeyson, Jaggers, Orlick, Aged P, and Ensemble. This actor has a great stage presence, a superb voice, and the ability to make the audience believe in all the characters he plays.

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Daniel Goode as Magwitch succeeds in capturing the roughness and brutality of his character, but in Act 2 there was a problem with his lengthy monologue. Not certain whether dialect or restricted acting area affected concentration and conciseness of speech.

For me the jury is still out on the design of the cube. Overall, I found this production impressive notably for the quality of the acting, its pace and energy and the cohesion of different aspects of theatre including mime, dance, and music. The interaction between the actors is superb. Ken Bentley’s adaptation of Great Expectations is well worth seeing. One can hope that the production will lead to many rediscovering Dickens: perhaps he still has something to offer as insight into the modern world.

Celia Bard
March 2018

Photographs by Lisa Roberts Photography




A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Dream of a Play

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by William Shakespeare

Questors Theatre Company at The Judi Dench Playhouse until 17th March

Review by Viola Selby

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom states that ‘reason and love keep little company together’, and although this maybe true for many things in life, I can find many reasons to love this play. Anne Neville has excellently directed a much-loved tale in a way that encapsulates its main themes of love, marriage, and the power of the imagination, keeping true to Shakespeare’s writing whilst bringing in a few new additions to keep the play funny throughout for all audience members. For example, the casual use of modern language occasionally introduced in to poetic Shakespearean speech gives the whole play a feeling of freshness. Its use by the workmen, in particular, brilliantly rounds off their characters from the others, the most famous of which must be Bottom, cleverly acted out by Anthony Curran. Through Curran’s amazing acting abilities, Bottom is given a modern makeover, with a Phil Mitchel—esque persona mixed in with a hilarious thespian superiority complex.

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In addition, such comedic talent is also brought in by the other actors, through their brilliantly timed responses, use of body language and facial expressions. James Stephen and James Burgess are flawless in their depiction of the two young men, Lysander and Demetrius, competing for first Hermia and then Helena. They create a comedy duo that have the audience in stitches with their witty banter and attempts at seduction, made even better by the brilliant responses of the two women, perfectly portrayed by Lauren Grant, as Hermia, and Clementine Medforth, as Helena. Whilst the marital bickering of Oberon and Titania is made extremely relatable and realistic by Jason Thomas and Samantha Moran. And although no Midsummer Night’s Dream would be complete without its Puck, made marvellously mischievous by Annabelle Williams, the true star of the show has to be Moon’s Dog, played by either Minnie or Django, both superlative canine thespians, who I am sure now have their own fan club after the reactions of the audience as the dog made its starring entrance on stage.

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However, although a comedy, this play is also filled with magic that allows its audience to escape from the real world. In this particular production, the audience are transported by the use of the creative genius of Alex Marker as set designer, Raymonde Child as costume designer and Andrew Dixon as lighting designer. Individually, their talents are excellently exhibited. From the fantastic costumes, that bring each character to life in a colourful and highly imaginative way, to the use of only three stage designs that somehow create the illusion of this whole world on one stage. Whilst, when put all together, these three manage to create a variety of atmospheres, exceptionally encompassing the feeling of night or day, depending on the time that particular scene is set. Even at the end, when only Puck is left on stage, the audience are left in awe by the use of just one light fixed on Puck. This simple technique is extremely effective and really depicts the magical-ness and overall artistic talent this play has to offer. Truly a night not to be missed.

Viola Selby
March 2018

Photography courtesy of Questors Theatre Company

Editor’s Note:  Don’t forget to take advantage of the Two For One offer to see Questors’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Benjamin Britten’s opera, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also running currently at the London Coliseum.  We can but dream.

Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em

Frankly Speaking

Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em

by Guy Unsworth

Limelight Productions at Richmond Theatre until 10th March, then on tour until 28th July

Review by Vince Francis

Working outside my usual brief of music gigs, I found myself in the crowded stalls bar of Richmond Theatre enjoying the pre curtain-up buzz (and a glass of a very passable Malbec) on a mid-week mission to capture the essence of the Limelight Productions’ latest offering, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.

Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em was an iconic sitcom which ran on the BBC from 1973 to 1978. It was part of the golden age of British sitcoms, which included the likes of Porridge, Dad’s Army and The Good Life. It also brought Michael Crawford to prominence and was something of a springboard for his career. The central character, portrayed on television by Crawford, is Frank Spencer, a hapless individual, a product of an over-protective childhood and prone to disasters.



The programme, which I think deserves a mention in this case, provides a brief history of British sitcom, together with a potted social, political and Top 10 charts history, together with the background to both the show and the original television series. This is an informative, entertaining and well-written programme and the use of period fonts adds to the atmosphere. Well worth the price.

Moving into the auditorium, the 70s feel is reinforced by the use of selected pop hits from the era, always guaranteed to prompt a fond nostalgic smile and a little discreet toe tapping. Such gems as Pilot’s Magic and Tony Orlando and Dawn’s Say Has anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose immediately place one in that magic period of wide lapels and flared trousers, nay, even stacked heels.

The show opens with the original Ronnie Hazlehurst theme, a duet for piccolos that leaves us in no doubt that we are about to see an homage to the original show. I only mention the theme music as there is an interesting aspect to it. Apparently, the rhythm of the notes spells out the title, but without the apostrophes, in Morse code. My Morse is a little rusty, I’m afraid, so I’m unable to verify this, but it’s a good story.


The single set is the interior of Frank and Betty’s home and is decorated with beautifully garish wallpapers and furnished appropriately, including a wonderful stereogram. Frank’s attempts at DIY are legendary and the effect is that nothing works without a stamp on the floor, or a slap on the wall in the right place. Credit to Simon Higlett for the design here, but also credit to the set builders and stage crew for bringing it to life. The use of sliding partitions is intelligent and the built-in effects work well. I’m sure it will be a maintenance nightmare, but well worth the effort.

Mr. Higlett is also credited Costume Design, with Michabel Wakeman-Read as supervisor. Again, a comprehensively well researched and executed element.


The plot revolves around Betty attempting to tell Frank that she is pregnant, whilst Frank is preoccupied with the possibility of appearing on television. Add to that Frank’s insistence on cooking dinner, the arrival of Betty’s mum, Barbara, with her new boyfriend, both of whom are aware of the news, and the possibilities for misunderstanding and mishap are endless.


Joe Pasquale, in the role of Frank Spencer, offers a respectful nod to Michael Crawford in his interpretation, but stamps it with his own personality. Joe, an accomplished comedian and actor, knows how to make this stuff work. Whilst his distinctive voice lends itself to the delivery established by Crawford, it doesn’t attempt to mimic that overly, but rather to access it when it helps to advance the cause (incidentally, I understand that Michael Crawford based his Frank Spencer voice on his daughter, particularly when she was pleading for something like staying up late). There are several quick costume changes, two or three machine-gun monologues, some bruising physical gags and an impressive amount of business, all which are carried off with great aplomb. Here, I also doff my figurative cap to the stunt coordinator, Kev McCurdy.


Sarah Earnshaw excels as the ever-patient Betty, desperately wanting things to be right for Frank. There is always a risk that a character like this could disappear among the mayhem, but Sarah’s performance doesn’t allow that, stepping aside where necessary, but then stepping back in again effectively.


I was especially taken by Susie Blake’s portrayal of Barbara. Her comedy experience is extensive and this show gives us a chance to admire the range of her abilities, including some quite brave physical stuff.

The supporting roles are all played with equal verve and carried off in style by Moray Treadwell, David Shaw-Parker and Chris Kiely.


Guy Unsworth’s script and direction move the piece along seamlessly with some of the gags being reassuringly predictable – and no less funny for that – combined with some surprises to keep the audience on their toes.

I wondered how a press night audience might react, peppered as it was with seasoned hacks. I needn’t have worried. My overall impression was that those who remembered the original were delighted with the tribute being paid and those that didn’t loved the knock-about. I would just add that, in naming all and sundry above, my objective is to acknowledge the level of work put in by the various elements of scripting, design, stunt-work and performance to make funny look easy. Warmest congratulations on achieving that.

Vince Francis
March 2018

Photography by Scott Rylander


Say Something Happened


North by SW13

Say Something Happened

Barnes Community Players, OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, until 10th March

Review by Eleanor Lewis

[Barnes Community Players are currently reviving three one act plays by Alan Bennett at the Old Sorting Office in Barnes. Say Something Happened is the production title and that of one of the plays, A Visit from Miss Prothero and Green Forms being the other two.]


A Visit from Miss Prothero is, amongst other things, a masterclass in the destruction of one human being by another. Mr Dodsworth has recently retired from Warburtons. He’s happy in retirement, reading the paper, going bowling, enjoying his grandchildren and not really thinking about work at all when ex-colleague, Miss Prothero, pays a visit to bring him up to date on events at work (this is the late ‘70s, early ‘80s). Despite his initial lack of interest, Miss Prothero persists and gradually but inexorably fills him in on all the new developments since he left which have ultimately erased everything he spent his working life doing. By the time she leaves, Dodsworth is a tearful, broken wreck of a man.

Striking in this two-hander was Elizabeth Ollier, in full command of the role she had. She understood the embittered and vindictive character beneath Miss Prothero’s thin veil of courtesy and played her appropriately. She sneered without appearing to sneer (quite a skill) and managed an authentic, accurate northern accent, finding and delivering the appropriate emphasis in every line and at no point veering into ‘comedy northern woman’. Rodger Hayward Smith as Arthur Dodsworth, though perhaps a little too doddery for a man in his sixties, was an effective, gentle foil for his unwanted visitor and poignant in his misery at the end.


Say Something Happened is the story of an elderly couple Elizabeth and Arthur Rhodes who are visited by social worker June Potter on a well-meaning but misguided mission from the council to make sure they’re OK and interview them as to how well prepared they are for the onset of old age and the loss of independence. The visit becomes a generational battle for control with the older couple seeming to be in charge most of the time and the inexperienced and gauche June attempting to help. The skill in the writing and, one hopes, the performance is that you are shown reality gradually dawning on Elizabeth and Arthur despite their apparent victory over the wide-eyed June. Though dismissive of the ‘HELP’ leaflet June leaves for possible future emergencies, Elizabeth keeps it, she has begun to feel fear.

Judi Phipps and Trevor Hartnup as Elizabeth and Arthur were believable as a couple settled in their habits and philosophical about the future. Francesca Stone as June Potter was however, never really a match for them. Leaving aside the fact that Potter’s accent seemed to hail from somewhere a considerable distance from any northern town, there was no real struggle for superiority between these three. Francesca Stone’s portrayal of an almost childlike June Potter, though endearing, was not entirely believable.


Green Forms finds two colleagues, Doris and Doreen, passing the time of day gossiping and reading magazines. Work doesn’t actually feature in their working day until in a cleverly crafted gradual ramping up of tension in which pink and then green forms become objects of terror, they begin to understand that reform is heading their way in the form of an unseen figure – Dorothy Binns – and their peaceful world is about to come crashing down.

Annie Collenette and Marie Bushell did a reasonable job as Doris and Doreen. Marie Bushell’s performance was particularly well observed, the defensive pulling of her skirt over her knees in response to Doris’ unexpectedly blunt retort: “… if you say ‘try Personnel’ I’ll staple your tits together”, was nicely judged.


There is sometimes a tendency with Alan Bennett plays, for directors to focus on the comedy and produce a kind of Benny Hill interpretation and there were elements of this in Tuesday night’s performance. In the first play there was an emphasis on Mr Dodsworth’s “appliance” and Miss Prothero over-emphasises “chiropodist” with a hard ‘c’. Similarly in Say Something Happened, Arthur Rhodes describes carbohydrates as “cardboard hydrates”. It works if that’s what you’re aiming for, the audience laughed heartily but Barnes is deep in the south of England and possibly labouring under the mistaken impression that northern folk in general are a) hilarious, and b) quite dim.

More importantly though, taking the Benny Hill route ignores the depth and quality of the writing. In A Visit from Miss Prothero, Miss Prothero completely invalidates Mr Dodsworth for no reason other than her own personal satisfaction. In Say Something Happened a contented, retired couple are forced to confront the prospect of old age, incapacity and death. In Green Forms, one woman wholly dependent on the tiresome work she is failing to do is willing to throw her friend and colleague to the wolves at the first sign of trouble, and the appearance in the play’s final seconds of the dreaded Ms Binns heralds the arrival of the new 24/7 world of work we in the 21st century are all too familiar with. These little plays are more than just three comic turns.

Staging was minimal and adequate, just. A cardboard-looking door which featured in all 3 plays was clearly fragile and all cast members who used it, visibly careful with it. I think alongside Miss Prothero, a visit from a carpenter might be wise.

Say Something Happened was an opening night performance on Tuesday. Overall it worked but was a little shaky, not all players were fully confident with their lines and the way in which some lines were delivered gave the impression they did not fully understand what they were saying. Northern accents (with the exception of Elizabeth Ollier’s) ranged from areas vaguely ‘up north’ to far beyond, as far possibly as Pretoria and the Netherlands. There are few things funnier than a northern accent – to a southerner anyway – or so it would seem. An announcement before the performance began about fire exits and interval timings was delivered in a cod northern accent. It’s worth bearing in mind that if you find the occasional real, live northern person in your audience you run the risk not only of offending them (tough though they are) but also, and more importantly, ensuring that they do not take you seriously.

Alan Bennett always sells, he has a devoted fan base. Barnes Community Players is an amateur company with a limited budget and a friendly local audience, which can lead to complacency. If they are to take this production to Edinburgh they need to raise their game a little. I’m sure they can, though, and I wish them lots of luck (and a better door).

Eleanor Lewis
March 2018

Photograph by Thornton Ramsden



After Electra

‘There’s No Easy Way to Say This’

After Electra

by April de Angelis

Teddington Theatre Club, Hampton Hill Theatre until 10th March

Review by Matthew Grierson

Is After Electra a comedy? There are plenty of laughs, for sure, and the cast are well drilled in getting them. But to depend on this kind of delivery, as the show seems to do, is to lose sight of its drama.


There should be drama after all: Virgie (Fran Billington) has gathered friends and family at her coastal home not only to celebrate her 81st birthday but also to declare her intention to walk into the sea, perhaps alluding to her namesake Woolf’s suicide. Yet it is difficult to take this pronouncement seriously because none of her guests are able to treat it as such. Line readings are given as jokes rather than dialogue, and I did not always have a sense that I was watching characters having exchanges – exchanges that are often heated, teetering between the self-aggrandising and the absurd.

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Part of the problem is that Virgie and her set are naturally given to dramatics, she a painter swanning around in a fabulous gown-cum-nightdress, her friends Tom and Sonia respectively a plummy thesp and neurotic novelist, and her younger sister Shirley a member of the House of Lords. Tom especially is given to declaiming the Bard, and later reads from MacNeice’s translation of Aeschylus that gives this play its title. But even though the lounge carpet is rolled out under the first row of seating in the studio, as though the audience is among Virgie’s guests, I did not feel party to the character’s concerns, given their self-conscious performativity. Sat where I was, stage right, there were also several occasions where characters walked towards me only to turn their backs and address the rest of the room. Had they seen my notes, I wonder?

The awkward rhythm created by the cycle of lines and laughs – and don’t get me wrong, this play has very funny dialogue – means that scenes tend to conclude unexpectedly and abruptly, without dramatic pacing or impact. When Virgie’s son Orin (Jeremy Gill) shambles in, we simply assume he’s meant to be there, with no preceding mention to set up the fact that he has not been invited. Similarly, discussion of a third, lost sibling is simply thrown in as the narrative moves along, and has neither the emotional impact you would expect nor the depth of feeling to which the characters refer in their dialogue. The first act rushes to end with the discovery of Virgie’s body on the beach, but it took me until long after the lights had gone up to make sense of what I’d seen.

The laughter predominant in the first half becomes positively distracting in the second when the mood ought to have shifted gear. Haydn (Helen Geldert) tries to feed her incapacitated mother but Virgie spits out the spooned food and her daughter, frustrated, smears the remainder of the mashed meal around the older woman’s mouth. This prompts laughter from the audience, who are by now so used to mirth that we are not persuaded this moment should be a wrench from comedy into bleakness. I’m not sure what point is being made, either, by having Haydn and Orin dressed for this scene as though they are teenagers – how do they recover their lost youth once they have to assume responsibility for their mother? Is this a belated act of rebellion against Virgie, the original rebel?

The conflation of pathos and bathos is most acute with the appearance of gentle, confused Roy (an endearing Loz Keal), a minicab driver waylaid by Haydn to stay for lunch with the family on the pretext that Virgie may need to be returned to her care home at any moment. He chips in with choric non-sequiturs when invited to comment, and, in his quiet, Northern accent he gives After Electra the feeling of an Alan Bennett play. But I don’t think that’s the effect the director is after. In her notes, Muriel Keech hopes we ‘will laugh, and wince, with Virgie and the rest’. And yet, I wasn’t made to feel awkward that this family was arguing in front of a dying woman and an unfortunate outsider.

The great strength of the play throughout is Fran Billington, who in the pivotal role of Virgie is a tour de force. In the first act she sweeps and swoops about her seaside abode, blithely declaring her suicidal intentions and waving away the concerns of her guests; in the second act, transformed by a stroke, she channels the same energy into her frustration, one arm hanging awkwardly at her side and, memorably in her convalescence, through frantic gestures with her eyes when other characters presume to speak for her.

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Such is her easy presence in the first act, in particular, that it is difficult for the other characters to establish themselves. Helen Geldert has difficulty making an impression as Haydn until she has to take charge of her mother in act two, while both Michelle Hood as Shirley and Helena Koska as Sonia have a tendency to seem flustered in their performances rather than in character. All three at least get to enjoy themselves with a spot of impromptu drumming in the final scene, but the moment again seems to come out of nowhere. As indeed does Theodora Ebeling, who is given the unenviable task of bringing Virgie’s student Miranda to life in the dying moments of the production. Her enthusiasm echoes Virgie’s own but she necessarily lacks her mentor’s worldliness and calculation, so it’s difficult to read the concluding stand-off between her and Haydn. Only David Robins as Tom ever successfully competes with Virgie’s dramatics, and his ability to rise to the knowingly theatrical tone of his dialogue also means he can be affectingly lost when he has nothing – or no one – to play up to.

After Electra remains Billington’s show, and is worth seeing for her performance alone. But on the whole, the production cannot effectively submerge us in the drama that lies beneath its surface.

Matthew Grierson
March 2018

Photography by Tom Shore

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Otherworldly and Magical

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by Benjamin Britten, libretto by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, adapted from William Shakespeare.

English National Opera, London Coliseum until 15th March

Review by Suzanne Frost

Sleep is a funny thing. Humans spend one third of their life in the trance like state and then we dream, wild and wondrous adventures that may be absurd or surreal but can seem as real as anything that happens in bright daylight.


English National Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an opera adaptation of Shakespeare’s popular comedy, takes the dream of the title quite literally: the entire stage is one gigantic bed with acid green sheets, the playing field that gets tangled and ruffled up with all the amorous action. A giant crescent moon is illuminating the stage. Everything, this production suggests, is a dream – the antics in the fairy kingdom of Oberon and Tytania just as much as the human lovers or the rustic mechanicals. All just phantasmagorical fabrications of the subconscious. Oberon, King of the fairies, (countertenor Christopher Ainslie) therefore fittingly wears acid green pyjamas under his acid green robe to match his shock of green hair. Queen Tytania (Soraya Mafi of ENO’s Harewood Artists’ Programme) matches her electric blue nightdress to her blue curls. The Trinity Boys Choir looks spectacular as a crowd of attentive fairy minions, an army of little green leprechauns with bright blue hair and butler’s gloves in fiery red. ENO’s stalwart in the costume department, Zeb Lalljee has rightly been given Associate Costume Designer credits in complementing Michael Levine’s inspired design. The vivid primary colours create images right out of a surreal LSD dream, the visuals are stunning and by far the strongest point of Robert Carsen’s classic production, now on its third London revival. It may be more than twenty years old but the minimal distinct staging looks fresh, modern and timely, otherworldly and magical.


Music wise A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not as smoothly digestible. The supernatural creatures of Shakespeare’s play are far from cute or innocent and Britten’s instrumentation evokes the danger and mischievous arbitrariness of the fairies, with unusual quivering sighing sounds teased out of violins; harps, celesta, gongs and cymbals used to ethereal and atmospheric effect. Britten’s music is challenging, strange, atonal, a bit alien and awkward.


I wonder why there are so many children in the audience. Just because it is a popular play doesn’t make it easy and Shakespeare’s comedies are always more or less obviously about sex. This one quite obviously. It plays in a bed! A poor little girl next to me couldn’t have been more than five and, at the mercy of some undoubtedly well-meant early arts education, she got twitchy feet within fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, she had another hour and a half to sit through: act 1 and 2 are played without interval and test the patience and sitting bones of even grown-up opera fans. I felt sorry for the girl and her family who left during interval. It can’t be cheap taking a family of four out to a show, but do your research – there is so much theatre in London for young people. Mozart or Rossini might be good beginner’s operas for children but Britten is not easy on the ear and it isn’t meant to be.

The empty seats gave me the opportunity to stretch my legs and enjoy the rest though, and the second act has images of pure stage magic you wouldn’t want to have missed. With a swish of his hand Oberon unveils three beds suspended in the air, a vision so dreamlike and Dali-esque the audience breaks into a little spontaneous applause. Again we experience another wondrous moment of enchantment from Designer, Michael Levine. As the beds softly descend, the lighting, co-designed by Director, Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet, can only be described as a post-coital glow. It is beautiful. King Theseus and Hippolyta, who I felt were rightly cut from the story line make a late somewhat unnecessary appearance to herald in the performance of “Pyramus and Thisby” played for everybody’s general amusement by the klutzy mechanicals, who throw themselves with spirit into a wonderful parody of romantic Italian opera, virtuously mocked by Britten. Puck, played with plenty of physical comedy by actor Miltos Yerolemou, nowadays probably best known as Game of Thrones Silvio Forel, is a mischievous pixie that reminded me of early Cirque du Soleil clowns, cute and funny and rough but also creating scenes that are dreamy and lyrical and tear a bit at your heartstrings.


This production is visually gorgeous in every scene but it is overlong and Hippolyta’s wish, that Thisby’s speech may be brief, is met with knowing snorts and laughter from the audience.

A feast for the eyes certainly but also quite a piece of work.

Suzanne Frost
March 2018

Photographs by Robert Workman